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Originally published Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Shiite factions put official seal on truce

Representatives of Iraq's main Shiite Muslim factions signed a deal Monday clearing the way for Iraqi soldiers to operate throughout Sadr...

Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — Representatives of Iraq's main Shiite Muslim factions signed a deal Monday clearing the way for Iraqi soldiers to operate throughout Sadr City, a vast Baghdad slum that is largely under the control of militiamen loyal to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The signatures put an official seal to a truce that was brokered over the weekend by al-Sadr's political representatives and members of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's governing alliance.

Negotiators said they hoped the deal would mark the close of more than seven weeks of fighting, which has claimed hundreds of lives in the district. But it remained to be seen whether all the groups that have taken up arms in Sadr City would adhere to the accord.

The U.S. military has alleged that most Shiite extremists fighting Iraqi and U.S. forces in the teeming slum have splintered away from al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and that the cleric's level of influence on those rogue groups is unclear. Many are thought to be trained and armed by Iranian forces. Iran denies the allegations.

The U.S. military said its troops in the southeastern portion of the district had come under attack at least three times and had killed three gunmen since the deal began to take effect Sunday. Iraqi soldiers had also traded sporadic fire with neighborhood fighters, residents said. The district's two main hospitals had received four bodies and treated 24 wounded since late Sunday, officials said.

Some militiamen said they were waiting for orders from al-Sadr himself before setting aside weapons. But al-Sadr's chief negotiator, Sheik Salah Obeidi, said Monday the cleric had issued written instructions authorizing his representatives to sign the deal and urging followers to uphold it.

The fighting erupted in late March when al-Maliki's government began a crackdown in the southern oil hub of Basra aimed primarily at al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

The government said the operation was intended to restore order in the lawless city, which generates much of the country's crucial oil revenue. But al-Sadr's followers accused factions within al-Maliki's alliance, one of which also has an armed wing, of using the crackdown to weaken the cleric's movement before provincial elections slated for the fall.

The fighting in Basra subsided in five days, but the crackdown sparked a fierce uprising in Sadr City and other Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad that has dragged on for weeks.

Under the deal signed Monday, all sides will suspend military activity for four days beginning Sunday, after which Iraqi forces will have free rein to search Sadr City for weapons and fighters, provided they have a warrant. A committee supervised by al-Maliki will monitor operations and investigate any reported abuses.

The governing parties have pledged to open up more roads into the district, increase humanitarian assistance, compensate residents for their losses and help the thousands displaced return home.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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